Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That’s not just a singsong saying from childhood but also possibly the only anti-bullying program that works. And boy, are we obsessed with anti-bullying these days.
Even before the Tyler Clementi case, I’d started wondering: Why were we suddenly so concerned about this age-old problem? Is it really getting worse? If so, how come? And if not, who’s benefiting by telling us it is (besides the media, which can always count on grabbing viewers when a young person’s suicide and bullying can be linked)?
So I called up the one guy who’s been talking about kid-on-kid misery for more than a decade — Izzy Kalman, founder of a program called Bullies to Buddies. In truth, I’d avoided calling him all these years because his organization sounded so sappy. But then I read a little item about his actually being anti the anti-bullying movement, and that intrigued me.
Glad I did. I’m going to start implementing his ideas tonight — at home.
It was Columbine that really kicked off the anti-bullying crusade, says Kalman, a certified school psychologist and psychotherapist. “Columbine was the most horrific event ever to happen in public education in our country, and it seemed like the perpetrators were victims of bullying. So we started a war against bullies, and the companies that had anti-bullying programs suddenly were making tons of money because now their services were in need.”
Only problem? They didn’t work. Or so says Kalman, who posits that the problem is not bullies. There always have been and will be bullies. Even bullies think that they’re bullied. So you can’t target the bullies themselves, an amorphous target. You have to target the reaction to bullying — a reaction that actually gets worse the more we intervene and dwell upon victimhood.
Think about how this plays out in the spot where the very most bullying occurs: not at school but at home. If you have more than one child there or simply grew up with a sibling, you know how it goes. “She started it!” “He started it!”
“The cause of most sibling rivalry is parents protecting the children from each other — protecting the weaker from the stronger,” says Kalman. “But this actually makes things worse, because they both start fighting over you.”
The solution is not more intervention; it’s teaching kids to solve their problems themselves. That begins with the adults extricating themselves. But today the opposite is happening. School administrators are being asked to intervene more and more intensively, in smaller and smaller incidents. That means they are acting more like parents than ever before. But if parents can’t get even two children to start being nice to each other, how can administrators expect to do that with 1,000 students?
The answer at home and at school is to show kids how to shrug off an insult.
“Most anti-bullying presenters are talking about how terrible bullying is. They’re telling (kids) that words can scar you forever. Have you heard that? ‘Words kill,’” says Kalman. “They’re teaching them they should get upset by insults instead of teaching them not to be insulted.”
He counters by teaching the “sticks and stones” outlook: Words are no big deal. He who shrugs wins. Not that it’s so easy to shrug off jerks, but it seems to be the only thing that works.
When I was in second or third grade, the most exciting word I learned on the playground was “ignore,” as in, “Ignore him.” It sounded so outrageously adult. And it worked!
When adults do the opposite and demand a full-court press, they take away kids’ power. It’s a power so old that it’s like a secret childhood vow taken in the woods and signed in blood: “Names will never hurt me.”
Until some grown-up says they do.